December’s songs

I am strongly tempted in the madness that is December, to save energy by recycling my anti-Christmas rant on this blog about seasonal busyness http://www.penelopewallace.com/christmas-busy-ness/, my anti-Santa rant http://www.penelopewallace.com/santa-claus-is-coming-to-town/, and my Advent calendar rant http://www.penelopewallace.com/advent-calendars/.

Instead, however, I will write a few words on the subject of Advent singing.

The other Sunday we sang Charles Wesley’s magnificent hymn “Lo! He comes, with clouds descending”.

Once, in my Presbyterian days, I attended a C of E church with my sister-in-law, and was surprised by the choice of this hymn, or one like it. “It’s not suitable for Christmas.” I was of course showing my deplorable ignorance. Advent is a three-fold preparation:  we wait to celebrate Jesus being born at Christmas; we welcome Him into our hearts; and we look for His coming in glory. Hence the hymn.

This year my concerns concentrated on the second verse: “Every eye shall now behold him, robed in dreadful majesty. Those who set at nought and sold him, pierced and nailed him to the tree, deeply wailing, deeply wailing, shall the true Messiah see.”

Hmm, I thought. Of late I’ve become a little more attuned to old-fashioned, and doubtless unintentional, anti-semitism. Is it anti-Semitic to specify doom for long ago Jewish people who “sold” Christ – or does the reference to the Romans who did the nailing and piercing make it all right? Surely we don’t believe that those people who happened to live at that time and place were any worse sinners than the rest of us?

And then there’s the whole “wailing” thing. I don’t want to rejoice at other people’s wails. Maybe it’s not a very nice thing to sing?

On the other hand, the Second Coming and the Last Judgment take up a lot of space in the New Testament, and there are plenty of mentions of wailing, distress and fear.

Coming at the choice of Advent/Christmas songs from another angle, I saw a recent article quoted from Christian Today on social media by a priest who objected to the inaccuracy, theological and otherwise, of many popular carols. He took particular exception to “We Three Kings”, on the grounds a) that they weren’t kings; and b) singing about them as kings detracts from the real King in the manger.

I was not impressed by his reasoning. Of course they weren’t kings. Of course the baby Jesus did have a crib for a bed (a crib originally is a manger by definition) and probably cried as much as other babies. Of course three ships didn’t sail into Bethlehem. And probably there wasn’t a lot of the white cold stuff around (“Snow had fallen, snow on snow”).

But the criticism seems to suggest that Christian belief and symbol and meaning leap from 4 AD, or whenever it was, to our needs in 2017, disregarding everything in between.

We sing and read and ponder the thoughts and poetry and artwork of Celtic and Medieval and Renaissance and Victorian Christians and their international equivalents for two reasons.

One is that they may be thinking more rightly than we are, or have insights or helpful images that we have forgotten. We don’t now talk or preach much about Judgment – but Charles Wesley might be wiser on this than we are. (This point is of course borrowed from C S Lewis, although he was writing about old books generally, not about carols.)

Secondly, we respect the ways, some of them doubtless metaphorical or even mistaken, in which our forebears tried to make sense of the incomprehensible. Anyone who doesn’t find the Incarnation incomprehensible surely has a problem. The idea of Kings worshipping a baby King who is greater than they is a powerful one, and it’s for the sermon, the reading and the Bible studies to demonstrate that magi aren’t royal.

Or even if it is plainly wrong, can’t we love and reverence the Christian ancestors who thought of it?

Not to mention the ongoing argument about whether Jesus was born in a stable at all. Many scholars argue that mangers existed in houses….

My Christmas cards are all wrong!

Love and Merry Christmas from the PPI Blogger

This blog will now take a holiday until 5th Jan 2018.

2 Comments
  • Malachi Malagowther

    15th December 2017 at 8:46 pm Reply

    If you go to somewhere like Jericho or Tel Aviv then you would probably be right to think that you never get snow there. When Sultan Hashem built his winter palace in Jericho he probably had good reason to think there wouldn’t be much chance of snow. However Jerusalem and Bethlehem are in the hill country and a few thousand feet higher than Jericho. They seem to get snow in Jerusalem as often as we do here in Nottingham. It’s not unreasonable to think that there may have been snow at the time of Jesus’ birth. In rural areas like Bethlehem people probably lived very close to their livestock and may have shared the same building with them. The Renaissance images of Mary in beautiful blue Mediaeval robes with oxen lowing in their stalls may not be very accurate but it does get across the homely nature of the living conditions and the fact that he was far from any palace. It’s difficult for us to imagine childbirth without a maternity ward and disposable nappies. Childbirth is a time of rejoicing now but then it would have been a time of fear of death, of either mother or baby and there would probably have been no pain relief for the mother or prenatal care. Travelling on a donkey while heavily pregnant doesn’t sound wise to the modern ear.

  • Judith Leader

    21st December 2017 at 6:51 pm Reply

    Thank you for your blog. I find it hard that we do not have teaching in church that tells us that it was the Romans who put Jesus to death. If you take one step back it was really God you did it as that was the plan from the beginning. I have just finished a book on the Romanov’s and the Czars on the whole felt it was there duty to come down hard on the Jews on the grounds that they killed Jesus. Although they often didn’t instigate the pogroms that killed many Jews they did not try and stop it.
    I don’t really like what I would call the tinsel of Christmas, in other words the sentimentality of it all and yet Christmas may be commercialized but we don’t have to join in. The nights are long and it is obviously much colder weather therefore it is good to have a festival during this time. I once was reading a book where the author made the point that just because a piece of music, say Mozart’s Horn Concerto is played badly, that doesn’t mean the music is bad. So I suppose Advent and Christmas is what you make of them and it is good that children can get excited with the add on’s. At least the most important festival, although it is commercialized to a degree (good for business) it is not as much as Christmas. This has the advantage that we can celebrate Easter without all the pressure of presents etc.

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